MovieMaker’s series “Foreign Contenders” will feature interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January. This year, a record 85 films have been submitted.

A priest that’s running late, men analyzing conspiracy theories over drinks, women fighting over the country’s community past, a princess dress that isn’t quite right, and a doctor trying to hold a grieving family together are all pieces of the human tapestry that adorns Cristi Puiu’s quiet-yet-monumental Sieranevada. The film takes place inside an apartment as a Romanian family gathers to honor their deceased patriarch. Inspired by the director’s own experience after his father’s death, the film is a lesson in character development, ensemble acting and creating gripping drama from commonplace tragedies.

Puiu manages to observe not only Romanian preoccupations, but the way in which his characters perceive the world outside in relation to their own ambitions and fears. With only a handful of features to his name, including the international hit, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Puiu has secured a place among the most striking voices in World Cinema today, and as one of his homeland’s leading auteurs.

Wearing his heart on his sleeve, the director spoke with MovieMaker about the philosophy that guides his creative process, making a film from the perspective of a dead man and why the camera is a machine gun.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The premise for Sieranevada comes from a very personal experience. Can you talk about its inception and why you felt the need to convey your feelings about this on a film about complex characters in a confined space? 

Cristi Puiu (CP): It’s a long and short story at the same time because I’ve been influenced by the books I’ve read and by the relationship I have with all this literature, drama of any kind, even opera. At a certain point, when I started thinking about making films, I was studying painting, and I switched to cinema. The first film I made to enter school in Geneva was a bit like Sieranevada, meaning it was a short film in which the action took place inside an apartment. This stayed with me. There is this famous text by Jean-Paul Sartre titled No Exit, and it was appealing because I’ve always had this impression that you can build up an epic without leaving a closed space like an apartment. If you use all the elements you have, like the different rooms with doors opening and closing, the different stories that are taking place in every one of these rooms, the way you are conceiving the apartment is no different from the way somebody else is conceiving a film about the Battle of Waterloo. You have mansions, castles, the battlefield, and many other different locations, but what you feel as a viewer is no different than if you were forced to stay inside an apartment during the whole film instead. They are both epic. This is one of the ideas at the origin of this film. The other one, of course, is the commemoration that took place after my father’s funeral in 2007. There were lots of people inside the apartment, we had a fight about the communists and lots of other arguments, and there was a dynamic to it. We spent eight hours there and didn’t feel time passing. Then in 2012 when Mirsad Purivatra, the director of the Sarajevo Film Festival and who is also one of the co-producers of the film, asked me if I had a new script I told him, “I don’t have a script but I this idea. I’d like to make a film about the commemoration that is taking place in an apartment.” These were the roots of this idea.

MM: Those war films you describe often have large set pieces, costumes, battles and other elements that surround the characters. Would you say that since a film like yours doesn’t have those elements, characters are much more crucial to create drama? You are creating an epic in an apartment. 

CP: Yes, but even in war films you need to build up characters. But it’s a matter of perception because those are places where you’ve never been. These places that are unknown to us make us feel much more uncomfortable, but inside the apartment we have the feeling that nothing is new and we already know everything that’s there. What’s new about an apartment? You need to have characters that have very rich personal lives and that are troubled to build up conflict and to imagine revelatory situations that can become triggers for your rational speculation or triggers for your emotions. It’s true that as soon as we find ourselves in a battlefield we are spectators. We are supposed to experience a new situation, which is not really true anymore because there are so many films that take place in a battlefield. The idea that you need to leave the apartment just to bring up new elements in order to keep the spectator’s attention is not true. It’s not that I made this film to prove this, but I made it this way to be true to myself. The commemoration that took place after my father’s funeral took place in an apartment. I watch sci-fi films or fantasy films and I like them, but I always choose to make films about my own experiences. What is happening inside the family is very relevant. Since we are only surfing on the surface of what the family is, we might have the impression that we know everything about the family, but I don’t think so. What is happening is following the same pattern that you would find inside any common or ordinary family with its own long history.

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